Dec 5, 2014 LITTLE PEOPLE…HUMONGOUS HEARTS – Part Two
[Note: The photo above shows much-venerated Munchkin Soldier Clarence “Shorty” Swensen and his equally treasured wife, Munchkin-by-Marriage Myrna, as the three of us posed during the 1994 Chesterton, Indiana, Oz Festival. This week’s blog is the second installment in a series about “the little people who live[d] in this land”: the Munchkin cast members of THE WIZARD OF OZ motion picture (1939). It’s strictly a brief, personal memoir; those who seek specific biographical information are happily directed to THE MUNCHKINS OF OZ by Stephen Cox (Cumberland House, 2002). As in last week’s entry -- and probably across at least two more beyond this one -- I’m simply here to recall some of the Munchkin experiences I was privileged to enjoy (and some of the Munchkin memories that have accrued) across the twenty-five years of promotional and special events we shared.]
The 1989 fiftieth anniversary commemorations of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s THE WIZARD OF OZ brought Munchkin cast members both into focus and into the spotlight on an unprecedented level. Suddenly, they were the revered objects of an abundant public fascination they’d never before known.
Part of this new-found celebrity was circumstantial: the last extant principal performers from the film – “Tin Man” Jack Haley, “Wicked Witch” Margaret Hamilton,” and “Scarecrow” Ray Bolger -- had passed away (respectively) in 1979, 1985, and 1987. Across and immediately prior to those years, the brunt of OZ media attention had been accorded any appearances they’d made or interviews they’d given.
By 1989, however, there were “just” the Munchkins, and as Oz galas grew in size and frequency over the next few seasons, event planners were quick to extend passionate invitations to any of the little people who were willing to make themselves available. (In truth, there also were at that time a number of surviving Emerald Citizians, Winkie Guards, and Winged Monkeys. But singular esteem fell to the Munchkins. Although certainly much older than they’d looked in the OZ film, they were still small – and this was an identifiable factor that thrilled cross-generational fans who often journeyed hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of miles to stand in line for autographs and photo opportunities with them.
The first and largest in-person Munchkin gatherings grew out of the 1989 anniversary revelries. As noted last week, a significant group of celebrants was assembled in August of that year for a Culver City, California, “reunion,” sponsored by MGM/UA Home Video. Between the contacts established on that occasion, and the extraordinary information amassed by Stephen Cox in THE MUNCHKINS REMEMBER (1989; the first edition of his book), thirteen of the little people then were gathered for the annual Judy Garland Festival in her Grand Rapids, Minnesota, hometown in June 1990. The same delegation appeared – with the addition of Townsman Nels Nelson and one of the “child” Munchkins – in October in Liberal, Kansas. Chittenango, New York, and Chesterton, Indiana, went on to host expanded amalgamations as well.
Such mass Munchkin exposure was (no pun intended) short-lived. Most of the survivors already were in their seventies; two were past eighty. In many cases, these denizens of OZ attended only a handful of 1989-1991 affairs before being sidelined by health or age. Yet even though the fellowship with some was fleeting at best, it was a thrill to watch any and all of them interact with devotees and paparazzi – and each other. If memory serves, it was LIFE Magazine who sent a photographer to capture the thirteen Grand Rapids Munchkin participants in 1990. They were posed together – by height! – on the lawn in front of the old schoolhouse that at that time boasted the local Judy Garland Museum. (Regrettably, the historic image then never ran in the publication.)
Three of those in that day’s line-up were only briefly able to travel. “Little Jeane” LaBarbera was the tiniest of them all, and she’d come to Minnesota with Robert Drake, her six-foot-tall husband and former vaudeville and supper club performing partner. Another – and arguably the most elegant – happened to be the oldest attendee: Nita Krebs, born in 1905. Nita somehow presented a fascinating mixture of fragility and wiry, iron-strength and refinement; cane in hand, she retained the regal posture and bearing of the star dancer and ballerina she once had been. As a result, OZ aficionados instantly identified her as both a Munchkin Villager and (with immeasurable joy) as the tallest of the three members of the movie’s “Lullaby League.” Another Villager, Emil Kranzler, posed proudly that day in an outsize Texas-style cowboy hat. He was a grin-inducting combination of old-school gentleman and past-perpetrator-of-hijinks, sharing (as often he did) a sly glance and guffaw about the Culver City shenanigans he’d perpetrated with Soldier Gus Wayne in 1938.
After Emil passed in 1992, his second wife Marcella Porter -- a little person as well -- continued to represent him at some of the OZ assemblies. She was one of several Munchkins-by-Marriage whose memories and lack-of-stature saw them readily embraced as the historical figures they’d become by association. Olive Brasno Wayne temporarily toured after Gus was incapacitated; Anna Mitchell Cucksey’s husband, Frank, never lived to relish the fiftieth anniversary (and ensuing) attention, but she was a welcome “stand-in” for a number of years, and moreover served at times as traveling companion for both Olive and Nita.
Other Munchkins-by-Marriage remained part of the personal appearance equation during (and, in some cases, well past) the 1990s. Indeed, the first Munchkin to join in the Chesterton jubilee was sought out in nearby Chicago by the event’s entrepreneurial founder, Jean Nelson. At her instigation, Soldier Pernell St. Aubin, with wife Mary Ellen, first came to town in 1982, and although Pernell died five years later, Mary Ellen continues to kibitz with and thrill admirers to this day -- whenever and wherever she’s invited to take part in the festivities. Munchkin Townswoman Ruth Duccini initially traveled to the Ozzy demonstrations with her own Munchkin-by-Marriage, Fred. “Lollipop Guild” center Jerry Maren went everywhere with his diminutive Elizabeth; “Coroner” Meinhardt Raabe toured with wife Marie; and the eternally good-natured and ever-approachable-for-hugs Soldier Clarence Swensen invariably arrived with his deliciously wry-witted and supportive Myrna. (As a young and tiny teen, Myrna Clifton had been scheduled to work in OZ with her similarly small parents; they then were sidelined at home in Texas when she suffered an emergency appendectomy and complications of surgery. When finally able to trek to California, the Cliftons were told by MGM to stay put -- that the Munchkinland sequence was too far along in production for them to be incorporated. As Myrna later would admit, she lost out on OZ but – in 1945 – she won Clarence.)
Other, younger Munchkins participated in OZ events into the 1990s – and some of them into the new millennium. In addition to those referenced above, there were: First Trumpeter Karl Slover; Soldier Lewis Croft; Townswomen/dancers Margaret Pellegrini, Fern Formica, and Betty Tanner (Margaret and Fern additionally doubled as “Sleepyheads” in the oversize Munchkinland nest); and Townsmen Nels Nelson and Mickey Carroll (the latter also was seen as one of the Five Little Fiddlers who escorted/accompanied Dorothy Gale [Judy Garland] to the county border).
By 1992, the Munchkins were in demand as never before. In addition to their presence at the four major, annual Oz festivals, they were sought for individual bookings or small group get-togethers at screenings of the film, at charity auctions, at “Hollywood”-themed formal balls and dances, and on diverse television shows. Such willingness on their part to remain accessible was clearly an inspiration to tens of thousands of OZ buffs and to several entertainment professionals; in 1993, one of the latter actually leapt into decisive action. Given all the media attention of the preceding four years, a young, independent film producer suddenly realized that it was important to capture as many as possible of the Munchkins’ OZ recollections for posterity. Consequently, eight of the little people and I found ourselves on-camera for a feature-length documentary.
(to be continued)
Article by John Fricke